The Best SF/Fantasy Books of 2003
by Cynthia Ward
In 2003 I read science fiction and fantasy for several review outlets and an award jury, so I read many books I wasn't interested in, and still haven't gotten to some desired new titles. While the deferrals are frustrating, I've read a lot of SF/F and discovered some great books I wouldn't otherwise have touched. I probably did my most diverse genre reading in years. So, while I haven't read all SF/F published in 2003, I have the makings of a more reasonable year's-end summary than I could've created if left to my own tastes.
The best science fiction novel I read this year is The Speed of Dark (Ballantine) by Elizabeth Moon. Protagonist Lou Arrendale is a well-paid pattern-recognition prodigy, happy with his job in near-future corporate America. But the new boss will fire Lou unless he agrees to undergo an experimental treatment for his condition. Lou is autistic, and The Speed of Dark fits in the tradition of Flowers for Algernon, Forrest Gump, and Rain Man. Though not as strong as Flowers for Algernon, The Speed of Dark is well written and Lou is convincingly imagined; this insightful novel deserves classic status.
Elizabeth Moon had a productive year, releasing two novels in 2003. While not as ambitious or affecting as The Speed of Dark, Trading in Danger (Ballantine/Del Rey) skillfully melds hard and military SF as it launches a new series about Kylara Vatta, a tough, resourceful young woman who becomes a starship captain. This deftly plotted interstellar adventure will please fans of McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan, David Weber's Honor Harrington, or Robert A. Heinlein's young-adult novels.
Close behind The Speed of Dark as the year's best SF novel is Chris Moriarty's debut, Spin State (Bantam Spectra), a dark, gritty mix of hard SF, military SF, post-cyberpunk, and suspense. In Moriarty's fascinating future, quantum physics enables interstellar teleportation, but teleporting destroys memories; this creates a big problem for Major Catherine Li, a clone illegally passing as human. Her secret becomes even more dangerous when she's sent to her hated home planet, where she must investigate the possible murder of the brilliant physicist who is also her clone sister. Spin State, with its kickass protagonist and posthuman romance, is great fun.
Like Elizabeth Moon, Catherine Asaro released two novels in 2003. Though rather thinly developed in themselves, The Moon's Shadow and Skyfall (Tor) enrich Asaro's justly popular future history, the Saga of the Skolian Empire. In the series’ eighth novel, The Moon's Shadow, seventeen-year-old Jaibriol Qox becomes emperor of the Eubian Concord, though he has a couple of deadly secrets. He's a son of the despised ruling family of Eube's enemy, the Skolian Empire; perhaps even worse, he's telepathic. Set two generations earlier, Skyfall recounts the abduction of Roca Skolia, heiress to the Skolian Empire. This ninth novel should be read first by newcomers, since by internal chronology it's first in the series.
Also productive was new writer John C. Wright, whose 2003 novels, The Phoenix Exultant and The Golden Transcendence (Tor), are sequels to 2002's The Golden Age. The highly mannered, Classically allusive, and often witty Golden Age trilogy presents a deeply imagined, intricately developed far future, in which the grandly heroic Phaethon of Rhadamanthus House struggles to gain the stars despite the massed opposition of two interplanetary civilizations. Puzzlingly, however, these novels gloriously envision posthumanity and passionately champion logic while committing the logical fallacy of assuming women are categorically different from men.
The best SF collection I read last year is The Bachelor Machine (Green Candy), which assembles several of M. Christian's erotic SF stories. I opened the book expecting a pleasant batch of erotica with some cosmetic SF touches. What I got was a hard-edged, disturbing, noir collection of genuine SF about not only the future of sex, but the meaning of sex. A few stories are confusing, but most are successful and all are intriguing.
In 2003 I read several other SF titles of note. Michael Flynn merges the traditions of C.S. Forester and Robert A. Heinlein as he describes the last days of a doomed starship in his fine novel The Wreck of The River of Stars (Tor). Red Thunder (Ace) lacks the skull-busting originality of John Varley's 1970s SF, but this near-future novel is a swell update of the Heinleinian juvenile novel. Jane Jensen's intelligent, exciting thriller Dante's Equation (Ballantine/Del Rey) blends religious mystery with quantum physics; if there were any justice, it would sell as well as The Da Vinci Code. Civil war draws closer in Steven Barnes’s Zulu Heart (Warner Aspect), the gripping sequel to the author’s brilliant novel Lion's Blood, which launched his epic alternate history of a North America of black African colonists and white European slaves. With her dark and lushly written near-future novel The Wraiths of Will and Pleasure: The First Book of the Wraeththu Histories (Tor), Storm Constantine returns after almost twenty years to her cult-favorite series about the Wraeththu, a hermaphroditic posthuman race; I enjoyed Wraiths, but newcomers starting here will only be confused.
The best fantasy novel of 2003 is Patricia A. McKillip's In the Forests of Serre (Ace). McKillip treats with traditional fairy-tale material an evil witch, an enchanted forest, and a beautiful princess betrothed against her will. But McKillip is one of America's greatest fantasists, and she writes so beautifully, and with such depth of insight and imagination, that In the Forests of Serre becomes archetypal, mythic, timeless. Classic.
The best fantasy collection I read this year is Changing Planes (Harcourt), which presents sixteen stories (ten original) from SF goddess Ursula K. Le Guin. Initially, I found the stories rather slight, but as I continued, the linked pieces accumulated considerable power. Sometimes satirical, they make little use of traditional characterization or story structure, having more in common with Jorge Luis Borges's ficciones, or with nonfiction travelogues, than Asimov's SF or Weird Tales.
The best fantasy anthology of 2003 is Mojo: Conjure Stories (Warner Aspect), edited by Nalo Hopkinson, who assembles nineteen original stories drawing on African, Afro-Caribbean, and African-American beliefs. Most of the stories are strong, and contributors range from Big Names like Steven Barnes, Neil Gaiman, and Barbara Hambly to terrific newer talents like Andy Duncan, Nisi Shawl, and Sheree Renee Thomas.
Other notable 2003 fantasies include Patricia Briggs's novel Dragon Blood (Ace). From its cover I expected standard heroic fantasy, but I found superior high fantasy, thanks to Briggs's careful attention to characterization and avoidance of cliché. And, though it's the sequel to a book I haven't read (Dragon Bones), Dragon Blood is easy to follow. Also clear and compelling is Robin Hobb's high fantasy Golden Fool: The Tawny Man Book 2 (Bantam Spectra), an impressive accomplishment for the eighth book of a complex series whose previous novels I haven't read. Fantasy fans who haven't time for multi-volume epics should try The War of the Flowers (DAW), a rare stand-alone from Tad Williams, one of fantasy's best novelists. This book accomplishes something I haven't seen before, combining contemporary and high fantasy with steampunk. Another big (though darker) contemporary fantasy is Tananarive Due's The Good House (Simon & Schuster/Atria), an emotionally muted but still powerful haunted-house/voodoo novel which should have brought her King-size sales.
Reviewing commercial SF/F every month puts me at constant risk of genre burnout, but last year brought me more good books than I expected, and some that are great, including a few surprises. I've been reading "that sci-fi stuff" for thirty years; so many surprises for this jaded reader indicate that science fiction and fantasy enjoyed a good year in 2003.
Cynthia Ward has published short fiction in Asimov's and numerous anthologies, and has written a monthly market column for Speculations. She has written many reviews for Amazon.com. Her website is at www.cynthiaward.com.